Confessions of a Poetry Geek

I love poetry. I am by all accounts a poetry geek, so of course I want to bring poetry into the women’s class I help teach at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). But I worry about overwhelming students in my enthusiasm, and can easily picture how a poetry lesson might go awry—

Me: Let’s read “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens.

Student #1 (reading): “She sang beyond the genius of the sea. / The water never formed to mind or voice, / Like a body wholly body, fluttering / Its empty sleeves…”

Rest of students:  {paper rustling, yawning, stretching, doodling in notebooks}

Me: What do you think of this poem?

Student #2:  To tell you the truth, it’s a little boring.

Student #3: Yeah. And too long!

Student #2: And I don’t get it. Is the woman in the ocean? And who is this Ramon Fernandez guy? (From the poem: “Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know…”)

Me: No one knows for sure, but some think he’s a literary critic.

Student #2: Then what’s the point?! If no one knows who he is, why put him in the poem?

Me: Good point.

Student #1: See, that’s why I don’t read poetry. It’s just a bunch of hidden codes no one can understand unless they’ve had a billion years of college.

They’d be right in their assessment. “The Idea of Order at Key West” is arguably one of the more influential poems of the 20th century, but it’s hardly low-hanging fruit that can be easily grasped from the ground. As a poetry geek, I love this poem and want others to love it too. But I remember the poems that first captured my attention, and they weren’t canonical “heavy hitters” like “Key West.” I cut my teeth on the children’s rhymes of Shel Silverstein and Robert Louis Stevenson, and eventually the American classics I was introduced to in school (Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, etc.).

As I thought about this, I realized I fell in love with the music of poetry first, and that I grew up with poems I could more or less understand. After years of reading poetry, and I mean years—decades, even—I could finally appreciate “The Idea of Order at Key West.” So why expect students in an eight-week class to jump right into the deep end?

Yet students always have an interest in poetry, despite the difficulties they may have had in understanding the “heavy hitter” poems they’d read in the past. Students in my previous ACJ classes wrote loads of poems. And here’s where the music (and possibly the expectations) of poetry come in—almost without exception, every poem rhymed.

I think that’s a testament to the music in poetry, but rhyming in contemporary poetry is tricky business. Open up the latest issue of Poetry and few, if any, of the pieces will rhyme outright. Today, strong rhymes seem sing-songy or childlike. If you want to write about a serious subject—say, motherhood, incarceration, death or love—do you really want it to sound like a children’s rhyme?

But rhyme, I’ve found, is what the ACJ students want. So I’ve embraced it. In our last class, we began with UK poet Hollie McNish’s “Embarrassed.” This is a Spoken Word piece about breastfeeding in public, which you can watch McNish perform here. I like this piece because the poet speaks strongly about something important to her, and because of the intricate rhythms and rhymes.

The students liked it, too. Maybe, they were even a little excited by it. Maybe they thought, I wonder if I can write something like that. I hope so.

But I also wanted to share how poetry could be effective without rhyme. How, like a musician, a writer has many tools in her toolbox. Musicians use rhythm, pitch, harmony, phrasing and perhaps a little vibrato. Writers can use assonance, consonance, alliteration, slant rhymes and a mix of strong and weak beats. Writers can also use, as outlined by the poet Jane Hirshfield in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, story, passion, voice and image.

So we read a few more pieces, most of which did not rhyme. Natalie Diaz’s “When My Brother Was an Aztec” went over well, I think because of the poem’s story, originality and unique details. We hit a few stumbling blocks with poems that relied more on image than music and narrative, but the exploration was an adventure, and kind of fun.

Now for my poetry geek confession: I also like poetry that rhymes. I don’t embrace it only because rhyming poetry seems more accessible to the students. I genuinely like these poems. Do I want everything to sound like “Rose are red, violets are blue…”? Of course not. But do I get a twinge of excitement when I hear Hollie McNish recite “Embarrassed,” with her practiced and emotive cadence? Do I still hear Frost and Dickinson thumping around in my head, years after I’ve read them? Absolutely.

I don’t know how much the ACJ students will read and write poetry after this class is over, or after they’re released from the ACJ and have bigger worries—family, jobs, etc. But I hope they find poetry a little less intimidating and something they can be a part of. Borrowing from Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West,” I hope that in whatever modes they use to express themselves, they’ll sing “beyond the genius of the sea.” Or at least, as most of us try to do, simply sing.

–Jen Ashburn, Teacher